Every year, on Zephany Nurse’s birthday, her parents got a cake to honor their first daughter, who was stolen from her mother in a Cape Town maternity unit as a newborn.
Gathered around the cake each April 28, Zephany’s younger brothers and sisters — Cassidy, Joshua and Micah — heard about the sister they had never met.
Last month, 17 years after Zephany’s disappearance, Cassidy enrolled in Zwaanswyk High School in Cape Town. There was an older student who looked so similar to her that it drew comments from the other children. Cassidy told her parents, who had never given up hope of finding Zephany.
The extraordinary coincidence led Celeste and Morne Nurse back to their long lost daughter.
On Friday, a 50-year-old woman appeared in Cape Town Magistrates Court, charged with kidnapping Zephany, fraud and breaches of the nation’s Child Care Act.
The woman and her husband have no other children. The husband loved the child and believed she was his daughter, South African news reports said, citing police.
Now neither family has Zephany. She has been taken into state protective care and met her biological family for the first time last month.
Celeste Nurse, the grieving mother who never stopped hoping, told a newspaper in 2011 that she still felt a connection with her lost child. “There was a smell on her when she was born. I smelled it the other day. I still feel our connection,” she said.
In a 2010 interview marking Zephany’s 13th birthday, her biological father, Morne, said he felt sure in his heart that she was living somewhere safe.
“I’ll never, ever give up hope,” he said. “I can feel it in my gut. My daughter is out there and she is going to come home.”
When Cassidy started at her new school, she and her biological sister clicked and grew close without knowing they were related, according to news reports. As Morne Nurse chatted with Cassidy’s new friend about her life and family, she mentioned her birthday: April 28.
He went to the police.
An investigation revealed that the girl’s birth hadn’t been registered until six years later, and that the hospital where she was registered had no record of it. DNA tests confirmed that Zephany is the Nurses’ child.
The aftermath of the discovery pits two families against each other: the Nurses, overjoyed by the hope of getting Zephany back, and the relatives and supporters of the desperate woman accused of stealing someone else’s baby after suffering several miscarriages.
“We are very heartbroken. We loved each other. She is our child,” the accused woman’s sister told journalists last week. The family said they were worried that Zephany would be wrenched away during her final year of school from the woman she knew as her mom.
Police told reporters Friday that they were trying to negotiate a plea bargain that would involve the woman serving prison time but would avert a trial that might further traumatize the two families and Zephany.
Among the state witnesses whom the prosecution would call in a trial are the woman’s husband and other family members. They cannot be identified, to avoid identifying Zephany by what has been her last name.
On Friday, Magistrate Mark Engel granted bail to the woman, who is on medication after a heart attack last year. But he warned her not to try to contact Zephany, either in person, by phone, on Facebook or through any other means.
Celeste Nurse gave birth in the Groote Schuur hospital by Caesarean section on April 28, 1997. In photographs taken just after the baby was born, she cuddles the infant, looking ecstatic and proud.
On April 30, Nurse dozed groggily in the hospital ward, her baby beside her. At one point, she woke up to see a woman dressed as a nurse beside her bed holding the baby, then she dozed off again. Later, she was awakened by a nurse asking where her baby was.
South Africa has had scattered cases of abductions from maternity wards. A woman who took a boy in 2009 was sentenced to 10 years. On Jan. 2, a baby was stolen from the same hospital Zephany was taken from.
A heartbreaking story in Cape Town’s Cape Argus newspaper in 2011 marked Zephany’s 14th birthday, with pictures of the fluffy-haired baby and of the family with their lost child’s birthday cake. “We do this every year to show that we haven’t forgotten about her,” Morne Nurse said.
Cassidy told the Cape Argus at the time she never let her other children out of her sight, even to ride their bikes in their secure gated residential complex.
She pleaded with the kidnapper: “Bring her back home. It’s been long enough.”
A lawyer who is acting as spokeswoman for the Nurse family, Heidi van der Meulen, said this week that Zephany had had limited interaction with her biological family since her identity was discovered. She said the family was worried about the effect of the situation on all four children.
Zephany released a brief statement, thanking South Africans for their concern and saying she was “doing well under the circumstances.”
The state Minister for Social Development, Albert Fritz, told South African television that Zephany was confused, disappointed and anxious and had asked to remain in state care. Department social workers were supervising short visits with her biological family to begin the process of bonding.
Social worker Leana Goosen told reporters that the teen just wanted to go back to school and a normal life, without having to choose between two families.
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